Maelstrom

My Complicated Divorce From Alcohol

My insatiable need to drink alcohol has always been based on the equally powerful desire to remain in control. The irony of the situation is that few things cause more entropy and loss of control than booze. One of the hardest things about quitting after three decades of heavy drinking is resisting the urge to immediately replace that obsessive compulsion with another obsession. Booze, despite making you miserable, is very effective at validating and justifying anything that you want it to. It assures you that you’re right and that you don’t need anyone else’s opinion on the matter. This best friend “Booze” becomes the ego at work, twisting your reality and blinding you to the fact that the only reason you pursue inebriation is to achieve validation. The feeling of satisfaction is always fleeting, and though one could praise you for 24 hours straight, telling your ego what it wants to hear, you will still find a way to pinpoint a single statement to take issue with. You will ruminate on this, allowing your thoughts to spiral out of control as it weaves false narratives into your mind, over and over. It doesn’t take long until you begin to believe these fabrications and accept them as fact. Other lies will start to take join hands with them until, before you know it, you are questioning reality almost all the time.

Why am I writing this? Because seeing the words on paper helps to solidify the truth for myself, I can bend memories to my liking, but I can’t change what the story says. There is nothing easy about any of these processes. Without alcohol to shield me from it, the much larger picture of reality comes into focus. Truth can be awful, and trust me, there are many times when I would love to go back to sleep. I want to go back to believing what I used to think and experience being numb all of the time, because that felt safe, even when I knew it wasn’t. Depression, fear, and misery can feel insurmountable when you find yourself stripped of the mask you have relied upon for your entire life.

Sometimes I feel like I am three different people with different priorities. At its worst, this feeling causes me to constantly second guess every decision. I begin fearing that I will no longer stand behind any decision I make a few hours later when I feel myself shift. Again, this is the ego trying to confuse you. The same ego wants your life to “happen” to other people’s lives, simply so you can assuage your own fears and insecurities no matter whose expense it comes. You find yourself going to any extent to please someone, but, under the surface, it is really a selfish endeavor to comfort oneself. It blurs the line to the point where it’s hard to know why you do anything anymore. It has been said that the “Ego is the enemy,” and I wholeheartedly agree. You cannot kill your ego. The more you try to force it away, the louder it gets. The only way to deal with the ego is to starve it, turn down its volume, and give it less power. Though it’s far easier said than done, it can be simple. You can acknowledge what it says, do not act like it isn’t happening, but then dismiss these thoughts as just that – empty and powerless.  It will always be there, but you do have control over how much you choose to listen to it. If the ego is properly harnessed, I’m told it can be utilized positively – but personally, I’ve got a long way to go in that regard.

I remember the first time I ever got drunk. I was 13, hanging out on the rooftop of an apartment building in downtown Portland. One of my classmates lived there with his family. Since finding access to this rooftop wonderland, we had been hanging out here regularly. We procured several 40’s of Colt 45 because malt liquor seemed to be a great alternative to “regular beer.” At this point, I have no idea where exactly we had developed this brilliant mentality, but I have a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with listening to an abundance of Cypress Hill at the time. I did my best to chug the 40 as quickly as I could – gagging a bit on the dreaded “ass end.” I immediately reach for a second bottle, which doesn’t go down as quickly – but still goes down. I recall heaving the empty bottle off the roof and into the streets below – my first time, and I was already making poor choices. I was immediately hooked on the indescribable level of warmth and well-being that I felt. Everything seemed to be exactly as it should be. I wandered around the Old Port with a friend, going into random bars and sitting until someone made us leave. The details of this evening are still so vivid, it’s as if it happened yesterday. 

Fast forward to four years later – I was 17 and had made my first unsuccessful attempt to cut drinking out of my life. I remember thinking that it was becoming a problem and that I should rein it in before it was too late. I am now 42, and only recently has this idea finally sunk in. Everybody who struggles with alcohol has a different path to dealing with it, with varied results. I’ve based an entire career around it, which came crashing down on my head and ended in what I would consider being a disgrace. I’ve centered my entire life around it, filled with so many extreme highs and lows. It had reached the point where my idea of a “good time” meant people coming over for dinner and then just watching me drink endless amounts of wine, yammering about God knows what. I wondered why I was seeing fewer people, though looking back, I have no idea why anyone showed up at all. I know I certainly wouldn’t have.

Being more sensitive than I’d like to admit, I have always envied cold, pragmatic men. There is a seductive quality to their capacity for cruelty and seemingly non-existent conscience. They just take what they want whenever they want with no regard for anyone but themselves. It is the fantasy of being firmly in control when I am anything but. Initially, alcohol aided me in my narcissistic and nihilistic endeavors. It worked to shield me from any kind of feeling or emotion which I perceived to be a weakness. It worked until it didn’t.

This year, 2021, had been primarily sober for me, but when it hadn’t – watch the fuck out because things were going to go off the rails. It took getting to my lowest point – after decades of heavy drinking – to say I will never have a drink again and genuinely mean it. Until recently, I was still under the impression that, in leaving alcohol behind, that I was abandoning a friend. Imagining a life without that friend was unfathomable. Because when you aren’t happy, then what can be more satisfying than inviting in more unhappiness?

After a short stint in a detox center, I had managed to stay sober for 9 weeks. During this period, I went from feeling good to feeling ok to feeling restless to feeling fucking insane. While in the facility, I had also managed to taper off and eliminate benzos from my daily routine. This gave me a false sense of security in that I thought drinking would have less of an effect on me if I wasn’t mixing. Though I had made definite progress towards moving past them, my emotional walls were still at least a little bit intact. I still could only focus inward, only think about myself. All that mattered were MY feelings and how I FELT. This was the way it had always been, even though I had not realized it.  

When I finally decided that the banality of everyday existence without the turmoil of drinking was too much for me to handle. I gave in. It was a Monday. It was day one of the darkest weeks of my life. I had made the decision to drink early in the day but had successfully warded off the urge until around eight at night. I suddenly hopped up and made a beeline to the liquor store. I proceeded to purchase a lot of wine as well as a few nips of 100-proof peppermint schnapps – if you know, then you know – to take the edge off on my way home. These fucking things hit me like a shotgun blast, right out of the gate. I would get such a sick pleasure from the syrupy sweetness and the intense burn. The face twists up in disgust, but the body immediately feels the warmth spreading throughout. I got home and immediately took up my “post” – in bed, AC blasting, laptop in place, and headphones ready. I would drink my wine out of a rocks glass because, at this point, it’s mostly about quantity (though I still never drink shitty wine). Additionally, They are a hell of a lot harder to knock over and smash than Riedel stems. The three bottles went down quickly, and at this point, I am ready to chalk it up to a “snow day” and move on. Even in the morning, though a bit rough around the edges, I am not committed to going off the deep end. I plan on weathering the hangover storm, go to the gym, resume scheduled programming.

On this day, a Tuesday, I have a doctor’s appointment at 2. I haven’t mentioned that I was experiencing a bit of a scare from something that my mind had convinced me was much worse than what it was – which was nothing. Annoyed and anxious, I want to go in earlier than my appointment, so I drive in and call from the parking garage, hoping they could squeeze me in. Of course, this is a stupid idea. When they inevitably inform me that I cannot be seen earlier, I am left with a chunk of time to kill to avoid going back home in between. It only takes about ten minutes of sitting in my car before my brain starts to wander over to the “Well, we could have a few drinks!” camp. It wasn’t long after that before I wholeheartedly followed. I went back to the liquor store, procured more schnapps, and there goes all of the pain. Immediately. My problems have shifted from everything going on to a clear, singular focus – how I’m going to stay fucked up all day.

I drank and drank throughout the day, saw the doctor and even got an ultrasound later in the afternoon. Unfazed, I stopped and reloaded my wine supply on the way home. When I arrived, the cleaning person had visited – which always puts me in a great mood. It’s my favorite day of the month – when you could practically eat off the floors, it’s so clean. I am not a messy person, I hate clutter, but I have no idea how to clean like THIS. I Immediately return to my post, and pick up where I left off last night. An hour later, I get some news that throws me for a loop. Luckily, I have everything I need to stay numb right within arm’s reach. I feel safe enough for the moment. This moment does not last long.  

Now is the part when a lot of time gets condensed in the narrative – because, for the next five days, I was like a ghost; almost completely blacked out the entire time. I remember only bits and pieces, but I remember that I never stopped drinking. I would drink until I passed out and would start again the minute I opened my eyes. I ate a total of three times during this period–just three separate meals over five days, with the continuous intake of what was becoming an ocean of wine; an ocean of wine that I was starting to drown in. During this week, I would have to consult my Bank of America app just to see where I had been. I was utterly possessed – I was taken over by a need and a compulsion that I had never known before. It immediately felt unsafe, and I could see the Tsunami coming up ahead. Still, I refused to push back against the current. Throughout this time, I would have text conversations with people as much as an hour-long, and it all looked perfectly lucid in hindsight – but I wasn’t there. When I think about how I could have seriously hurt someone else during this period, it makes me feel insane with regret. As far as hurting myself goes, I figured I deserved whatever came to me. There were reports from people who spoke with me on the phone near the end of this. They told me I would transition from crying hysterically to laughing and then yelling. I was entirely out of my mind – something else was driving – something demonic that did not intend for this to end well. I can say that with utmost certainty. Day in, day out – I just kept drinking. I kept my contact with the outside world minimal. However, I was thankful for the few select friends that I did communicate with. They would act as a lifeline when I found myself unable to pull out of the tailspin I had entered. 

At one point, I gathered up the wherewithal to try and go out in public, as if proximity to other human beings in a social setting was exactly what I needed at that moment. There is a restaurant about a five-minute walk from my house, and I pulled myself together to shower, groom, and get dressed – I thought perhaps the fresh air would snap me out of this. As I got to the restaurant and sauntered towards the door, I paused, about ten feet away. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, vacant like a zombie, teetering on the threshold of reality. The air feels like it’s bouncing off me, doing nothing to snap me back into it. People are walking by as if I don’t even exist. I know this place is not for me. I turn and go home, resuming my post. 

Though it is clear where my mind is at by now, it’s important to remember that equal and possibly greater amounts of damage are being done to my body. It is becoming impossible to keep the physical pain at bay. Usually, drinking buys me time by making my stomach, which essentially gets destroyed in the process, feel numb. The minute I stop, I know what is coming, the sensation of having one’s system filled with battery acid for 2-3 days. When I drink, I usually experience at least two hours of deep and comfortable breathing, experiencing a relaxing sensation and feelings of well-being. Not anymore. That is over now, replaced by the tingling, sick warmth of fear, paranoia, and regret. At the same time, my anxiety ramps up at an incredible rate. When I would start to feel like I was going to throw up, I would take a huge gulp of wine, lay on my back, and hold my hand over my mouth until the feeling passed. Usually, during a bender, you can drink yourself into lucidity for at least a few hours a day. Sure, it may be drunken lucidity, but you are aware and conscious and can think to breathe. In this case, the more wine I kept on funneling down my throat, the deeper I kept going. Whenever I thought I was going to surface, it was like being trapped under ice, impossible to get the breath of fresh air I so desperately wanted. Just this constant, dull thud, unable to generate enough force to break back through.

It’s easy to romanticize death. It’s easy to wish for your own death — to fantasize about escaping all of your problems. It’s easy to idolize musicians and actors who have left too soon. I will tell you, though, that once death is right in front of you, all that romance dissipates into thin air. The fear that takes its place and grips you is indescribable; you desperately start scrambling as you come to the realization that you do not, in fact, want to die. The panic deepens as you start to lose grip on reality. With fear screaming in my face, inexplicably, I drank more and more, faster and faster, but no life raft was materializing. The waves were getting darker and more prominent. I know that sounds like a ridiculous, Axl Rose-Esque exaggeration, but that is exactly how I perceived it. To stop drinking abruptly was just as terrifying as loss of life. 

My parents live in the same town as me and have keys to my place. It was right at this time, on a Monday (which I learned after the fact, as days had no meaning to me by this point), that they came through my bedroom door unannounced. They came over at the urgent suggestion of one of my concerned friends whom I had contacted. They took all the wine from my house and whisked me away to theirs at this pivotal and desperate moment. They had a hard time believing what they were witnessing. They clearly have not struggled with addiction personally and do not know how powerful the urge can be.

When I think about rock bottom, the image that most frequently comes to mind is what followed: Lying on a bed, downstairs at my parent’s house, in a room that already had terrible energy to begin with, I remember writhing and screaming into a pillow. I couldn’t imagine anything more uncomfortable than being in my own skin at that moment. I tried to call people but would immediately break down into hysterical crying when they would answer. I coerced my father into giving me a cup of the confiscated wine to ease my transition into what promised to be a very bumpy withdrawal. I was frantic; I decided to escape and walk to the gas station to buy liquor but couldn’t find my wallet anywhere. I was starting to lose my mind again and was prepared and desperate enough to tear the room to pieces looking for it. Instead, I went upstairs to try to fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV. I needed a change of setting and something to distract me from my spiraling and all-consuming mind. Of course, I couldn’t sleep but was able to relax a bit. I think I took this opportunity to watch every fucking episode of Beat Bobby Flay. It was the exact kind of mindless entertainment that I needed. 

As the sun came up, I began to feel like I was going into shock. I asked my father to bring me to the ER. I literally didn’t think I would make it on the drive there, especially during a particularly nasty traffic jam in town. An intense pins and needles sensation which began in my hands started spreading throughout my body, even into my head. This, of course, triggered massive anxiety, which in turn fed directly back into it.

I have had countless experiences with mind-numbing withdrawal symptoms and have been to the ER for it more times than I can count, but this felt different. This felt like I had nothing left, physically or emotionally. They took me in and rigged me up for the EKG, administering fluids, benzos, and meds for nausea. All of this I had done before, and it wasn’t until I was informed that

they were admitting me overnight that the true seriousness of the situation became apparent. I was told that if it had gone much further, I probably would have ended up dead or with brain damage – which is as good as being dead to me. I was floating between reality and a medicated dream state. I slept better than I ever had that night. I felt safe, and I felt hopeful. The imagery in my dreams was so vivid that it continues to haunt me. I had confidence that all the sensations that would usually alarm me were being monitored by the medical staff. This gave me a lot of time to experience lucid thoughts and begin to process what had happened. I still felt a bit numb, so the crying wouldn’t start quite yet, but I was able to take a step back and put things into perspective in a way I never had before. This was different – I had thought I had been at my lowest so many times before, but something had changed inside of me.  

As previously mentioned, things didn’t get “easy” at this point. My rose-colored glasses had been smashed along with my real ones during the previous week. This felt like being broken into countless pieces and I was left feeling raw and extremely vulnerable. The feeling of hope was balanced out by a sense of dread, knowing that this was only the very beginning of the work I needed to do. I overanalyze everything, and I felt like the threat of constantly spiraling could happen at the drop of a dime. I tried to simply recognize all these things as what they are – feelings. Though unpleasant, they won’t hurt me – unless I try to act on all of them. There are countless metaphors for this, be it a river or a cloud or whatever. The real problem is impossible to uncover while intoxicated. Unfortunately, alcohol stops being effective the minute you feel like you need it the most and follows by amplifying the situation until it seems a thousand times worse. 

Though the physical benefits are immediate when you stop drinking, the mental ones often take much longer to manifest. Sitting with the discomfort of thoughts you used to drink away can literally push you to the brink of madness. You desperately want to reach for something – anything – to take the edge off, but there is nothing to console you. All of your negative emotions seem to be on overdrive, creating what feels like an endless stream of destructive impulses. Though you start to become skilled at identifying which feelings are real and which are not, it often doesn’t make it easier to resist indulging them. It seems like there should be a point when you “make it through,” and these thoughts will cease to torment you – but unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen like that. Your irrational side wants to believe you are “fixed,” that you “put in the time,” and now you’ve reached an imaginary finish line. Nope. 

When you base your entire life on validation, instant gratification, distraction, and pleasure-seeking, it is complicated to come back down to the “normal” world. To not be “rewarded” somehow every time you do something positive actually takes a lot of getting used to. There is a void, a near-constant pit in your stomach – and it sucks the joy out of everything like a black hole. You start to feel incredibly self-conscious about becoming one of the “needy” people that you have always hated so much. Words begin to all blend together into a useless cocktail that always leaves you wanting more. 

Fortunately, all this unpleasantness is a good thing. It shows that any misconception that your problems were all based on being “powerless with alcohol” is simply not true. In fact, alcohol isn’t the actual problem, but rather a symptom of it. There is so much more to it, and now you get to explore it. Even though it sucks. You no longer feel like you are simply treading water. If you think back to when you have felt the worst in life, often it got better and no longer bothers you. There is no reason for this situation to be any different. Remember that your brain works to avoid uncertainty by telling itself stories, which then involve making predictions on what it considers to be reliable information. What you actually know to be true can be useless in times like these. It is up to you to change this narrative.